Just like it used to be

Old-Trolley Kitchen revives wholesome American diner favorites

by Lynn Woods
November 18, 2010 02:01 PM | 2 2 comments | 18 18 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Angus MacDonald, left, and Sylvan Perez behind the counter.
Angus MacDonald, left, and Sylvan Perez behind the counter.
The little white trolley car has graced East Chester Street for more than 80 years is a charming artifact from Kingston’s past that for decades seemed fated for permanent obsolescence. A new place would open under a new owner only to be closed a few months later, its shabby appearance and iffy hours signaling it wasn’t the place you’d go to actually have a decent meal.

But now it’s been rescued, spiffed up and reopened as Two Brothers Old-Trolley Kitchen, or EAT, as the large plain sign above the roofline proclaims. The brothers are Sylvan Perez, 37, and Angus MacDonald, 49 — the exact familial relation is too complicated to explain here; they are indeed family, if not actually connected by blood —and the made-from-scratch, locally sourced simple food they serve up, with a fillip of specials that reflect a tad more sophistication, is creating a buzz on Facebook, with word spreading fast. Fans are coming from as far away as New Paltz and Woodstock to gulp down the breakfast sliders (sausage, egg, and cheese served on a small bun), Cobb salad, and steak and eggs. Perez does a lot of the prep work, making the salads, soups, and homemade preserves, while MacDonald is the short-order cook. Their friend, Joy Roman, helps out.

Perez and MacDonald exactly get it. One can finally sit at the historic counter in comfort and admire the rows of chrome stools (newly upholstered with red vinyl), the checked linoleum-looking floor, the four little tables huddled under the row of square windows, crisply outlined in black paint, and the minimal stainless steel cooking equipment, squeezed behind the counter. All while listening to David Gray warble on KZE and having a really good, affordable breakfast or lunch that’s guaranteed to fill you up for the rest of the day.

EAT rescues basic American road fare from the dustbin of history, which once upon a time was tasty, nourishing, and pretty healthy. Biting into the cinnamon French toast, spruced up with EAT’s special emulsified maple syrup (the cook heats it up in a sauce pan with butter), or a normal-sized burger of really good meat in a soft bun with homemade fries and a pickle on the side, is akin to Proust biting into his Madeleine, releasing waves of long-buried emotion from the collective memory. It’s like coming home.

Perez explained that in the days before the chains and big agri-business, the traditional luncheonette offered a cheap, standardized cuisine that was wholesome, relying on ingredients from local truck gardens, dairies and poultry farms. Resurrecting this concept seems right for our times: a commitment to the locally sourced and organic that yet simultaneously seeks to keep prices affordable — a return to basics that respects both the pocketbook and the palate. “We want to make sure we are getting the best quality ingredients,” said Perez. “But if we can’t get it local or organic, we’ll just make sure it’s yummy.”

When the Kingston Farmers’ Market is at its peak, probably about 60 percent of EAT’s comestibles are made from local ingredients. The beef comes from a slaughterhouse in Pine Plains that only uses grass-fed, grain-finished locally raised cattle; by buying a whole side of beef, the brothers save on costs. They obtain their sausages and other meats from Catskill Smokehouse. They make the sumptuous jams and preserves themselves (with plans to start selling the preserves to their customers, so popular have they become), along with the hearty soups and baked goods — including a unique sweet called a sugar pie.

They offer two grades of eggs — one from grain-fed chickens, the other from free-range, pastured (chickens that are fed grain but also forage) or foraging birds — with tiered pricing, so customers can either save a few quarters, or go for the best. Currently, the brothers obtain their supply of eggs from free-range, farm-raised chickens from a variety of local suppliers, which is expensive and time-consuming. MacDonald said EAT is negotiating with a local farmer to possibly keep a flock of foragers exclusively for their use. “We’re making it up as we go along,” Perez added, noting that partnering with suppliers and working with other businesses and restaurants is key to EAT’s philosophy.

But the brothers also have a commitment to the unpretentious. The white bread is from Deising’s, the small rolls used in the sliders from Martin’s. You can order a slice of Cooper White American cheese for your hamburger — it “melts deliciously,” noted Perez — and even have a Coke that tastes (and looks, in its slender glass bottle) like it used to. EAT stocks soda from Mexico, where it is still sweetened with sugar, the old-fashioned way, rather than with high fructose corn syrup. (The brothers also plan to stock Dublin Dr. Pepper, produced in the only soda-manufacturing factory in the nation that still uses sugar as a sweetener.)

EAT’s genesis was the availability of the trolley car, which the brothers rent from Andrea Hameed (who also owns the neighboring Sunoco station). MacDonald, who lives in Highland and worked in corporate IT for many years in the city, had his eye on the 1927 car for many years and contacted Perez when it was for rent. (The car is not actually from a train, but was prefabricated and delivered to the spot by train and trolley. As a low-end model, the car is exceedingly rare, since owners back then tended to upgrade to a larger, shiny metal diner to accommodate their growing business. MacDonald said only a few of this type are preserved in the U.S.)

Perez has been in the restaurant business most of his life, earning kudos for his cooking at Wildflower in New Paltz in the 1990s. (His mother is Dutch, and he lived in Holland for the first decade of his life, which accounts for fond early food memories that exclude a trip to the supermarket.) He traveled the country for seven years while working at the Renaissance Faire selling roses, taking temporary cooking jobs on the side in various cities, including Austin, Texas. He lived in the Mid-Hudson for a year and a half in the late 1990s, working at the former Uptown lunch spot Joyous Kitchen. After his daughter and her mother moved to Colorado, he followed, cooking at a roadhouse before settling in Houston. He had been working as a waiter and bartender in Westchester for the last seven years, ready to give up the business, when Angus called.

When Perez and MacDonald took over the trolley car, they got rid of a couple refrigerators, keeping only two, which is just enough for a few days’ supply. Stocking up as they go along — Perez called it the “French pantry” concept — means by 3 p.m., they are out of many items. (They’re still tweaking the supply-demand equation.) While they thought breakfast would be a bigger sell than lunch, business for both is pretty even, with some customers choosing to order breakfast later in the day. “It’s a later crowd,” Perez said.

They are considering staying open late a few nights a week and serving dinner, given the demand. Neighbor Kristine Vogel, who was having a late lunch the other day with a couple of friends — “everything’s awesome,” she said — noted that Perez had cooked her up a few special meals, but that’s due to the friendship that has evolved. The brothers are like that, keeping things loose and easy — and fun.

Perez said that many customers hail from the restaurant business, which is a compliment, of course. A few are rail buffs, drawn by the restaurant’s special N-gauge model train: the tiny cars, miniature track and teeny buildings are preserved under the glass counter. The brothers intend to get it working soon.

Originally, EAT was open seven days a week, but the brothers are now closed on Tuesday, finding they needed a break. The business, however, is basically a blast, fueled by the brothers’ desire to contribute something substantial to the dining experience. “I want people to have the experience of eating well,” Perez said. “I want an 80-year-old guy to come in here and say, ‘Hey, that’s like the burger I remember.’” 

Comments-icon Post a Comment
Larry Fuchs
November 30, 2010
I ate at the Diner during a resent visit to Woodstock, not once but twice. The food is spectacular! The service and atmosphere are tremendous! Joy, Angus, and Sylvan go out of there way to make you feel welcome. Highly recommend!

~ Larry Fuchs, Clearwater, FL
November 19, 2010
Such an amazing article! Looks yummy. Was a great read.

Comment Guidelines
Note: The above are comments from the readers. In no way do they represent the view of Ulster Publishing.